On January 27, Uzbekistan’s voters duly turned out and answered yes to both questions in a referendum initiated by President Islam Karimov. The referendum has rubber-stamped two constitutional amendments. The first extends the presidential term of office from five years to seven–meaning, for Karimov, that his current (second) term will expire in 2007, instead of 2005. The referendum has not affected the constitutional provision limiting the president to two terms in office.
The other amendment–which has received scant international attention–increases at least theoretically the influence of the legislative branch in the political system. It creates a bicameral parliament, with a lower house to be elected in multicandidate balloting and an upper house consisting of officials from the country’s regions. The lower house will be a “professional” one–that is, in session during most of the year and consisting of full-time deputies who are not employed elsewhere. This setup replaces the current, unicameral parliament, which in the Soviet tradition convenes several times a year for short intervals, and the members of which have their own full-time occupations.
Karimov, 63, has ruled Uzbekistan for almost thirteen years and is now set to continue for at least another five. He came to power in 1989 as first secretary of the Uzbekistan Communist Party’s Central Committee, as part of personnel changes that perestroika brought to the then-Soviet republics. Elected president of the republic by its Supreme Soviet in 1990, he then won a contested election by popular vote to a five-year term as president of independent Uzbekistan in 1991. Electoral fraud inflated the margin of Karimov’s victory in that election over Erk [Freedom] Party leader Muhammad Solih, who then went into exile. Two years later, Erk and the Birlik [Unity] movement were banned.
In 1995, a year before his first presidential term expired, Karimov held a popular referendum extending that same term–which still counts as his first–until 2000. In 2000, Karimov won re-election to a second five-year term by popular vote, with both the turnout and the victory margin being officially reported at some 90 percent. His opponent, the leader of the National-Democratic Party–the revamped Communist Party, shorn of all its former assets and influence–announced that he was casting his ballot for Karimov.
Speculation is already rife with regard to 2007, when Karimov’s redefined second term expires. He will have the options to hand power over to an elected successor, to again extend his second presidential term or to amend the constitutional provision that limits the president to two terms of office and seek a third term.
The authorities’ referendum campaign was low-key, amid voter apathy and widespread passive consent. An estimated 7,000, mostly Islamist opponents are in prison. Although Karimov’s name was not on the ballot, the referendum was cast as one for approval of his performance. The authorities lavishly credited Karimov for maintaining stability and defeating the terrorist and Islamic fundamentalist challenges, but argued at the same time that Karimov would need more years in power to achieve his state-building goals.
The president himself refrained from campaigning. On balloting day, Karimov declared that the country, and the difficult times of historic change, require a “strong-willed, reliable figure” as president, and “some authoritarian methods at times.” Obliquely he cautioned the West that “nobody should press us into moving too quickly. We must adopt what is suitable for us, keeping in mind thousands of years of history and our national mentality.”
International organizations, including the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (OSCE/ODIHR) declined to send observers to the referendum, as did also the United States. A State Department statement recalled that past Uzbek elections were neither free nor fair and had not offered voters a choice, and that the preconditions were lacking for a free and fair referendum. Yet the U.S. government on the whole played down the event so as to avoid damaging the close cooperation with Uzbekistan in the antiterrorism campaign.
The Birlik Central Council also played down the referendum and its outcome as “of little importance.” By itself, the prolongation of Karimov’s term of office neither jeopardizes nor advances the overdue reforms now. The president has an unprecedented opportunity to proceed with those reforms in the new context of regional security, provided by the U.S. military presence, which he invited to the country, and U.S. willingness to support those reforms through timely and comprehensive assistance (Uzbek Television and Radio, Zhahon, January 24-27; Institute for War and Peace Reporting (London), Central Asia, no. 100, January 25; Eurasia Insight, January 26; Birlik website, January 26; Western news agencies, January 27; see the Monitor, September 11, December 6, 2001, January 22).
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